The 2000 movie The Color of Friendship opens with a montage of different Washington, D.C. monuments as L.T.D.’s 1977 funk classic “Back in Love Again” plays in the background. It looks and feels like a nostalgic, feel-good Black movie during its first minute on-screen, but as it turns out, the film is a timeless... Disney Channel Original movie.
Based on the true events of Piper Dellums’s life, The Color of Friendship follows a Black American girl named Piper Dellums (played by Shadia Simmons), and a white South African girl named Mahree Bok (Lindsey Haun) whose worlds collide when Mahree leaves home to live with Piper and her family for four months as part of a student exchange program.
Twenty years ago, The Color of Friendship stood out amongst its DCOM peers due to its unflinching depictions of racism, racial stereotypes, and the ignorance that is informed by the two. Premiering as a special during Black History Month—a move Disney has not repeated since airing an episode of That’s So Raven called “True Colors” in 2005—the Emmy award-winning film was an experimental one as it was, and still remains one of the few times Disney has deviated from its happy-go-lucky scope and attempted to tackle the harsher, more complicated realities of our society.
I was only two years old when the movie premiered; however, I remember watching as a kid in subsequent years and not fully understanding the magnitude of its message. Now, as a proud subscriber to Disney+ as an adult, I was able to revisit this timeless film and fully appreciate the story of how two girls learned the ins and outs of interracial friendship.
The film delves into race early on, when Piper convinces her father to let their family host a South African exchange student—Mahree, whom Piper assumes is Black. The movie switches back and forth between Piper’s and Mahree’s perspectives leading up to Mahree's arrival to meet Piper's family in D.C. The setting in 1977 places Mahree in the midst of apartheid in South Africa; under apartheid, as viewers learn, Black South Africans were subject to severe racial discrimination and segregation from their white counterparts in public and private spaces, which limited their contact with one another.
As a result, Mahree's positioning as a white South African during apartheid greatly influences her idea of Black people as “criminal” and “inferior”—an opinion she initially upheld upon meeting the Dellums family. Mahree is surprised to find that the Dellumses are an upper-middle-class family who live in a large home in the suburbs, and that Ron Dellums, Piper’s father, is a Congressman. Back home, the only Black people we see her encounter are a young male waiter and her maid and “friend,” Flora. Her ignorance fosters several microaggressions towards the Dellumses, such as when she expects Piper and her mother to carry her luggage when leaving the airport and when she referrs to Piper’s school as a “bantu” school, which Bok explained meant “Negro” or “Black” in her country. What follows is a tense exchange between the girls that would be difficult to imagine in any contemporary Disney movie, especially for its inclusion of racial slurs.
Both Piper’s and Mahree’s fathers’ occupations play a significant role in influencing how they viewed the world and one another. Both in the movie and in real life, Piper’s father spearheaded an anti-apartheid campaign during his time in Congress; Mahree’s father was a policeman. Piper and Mahree’s most telling altercation arises following the death of South African anti-apartheid activist, Stephen Biko, who died in prison at the hands of the police. In the film, Mahree is taken to the South African embassy in D.C. for her “safety” and learns of Biko’s death while there. However, she's told by the embassy that Biko killed himself and that “the Americans have gone daft over it” after witnessing anti-apartheid protesters marching outside.
Stephen Biko’s death in the context of this film draws strong parallels to the present-day Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements. The girls’ differing understandings of the situation reveal America’s long and unsettling attitude toward police brutality and the mishandling of justice that often arises from it. Despite this event taking place in South Africa, Piper’s father was aware of Biko’s fight for justice for Black people in his country, and his campaign inevitably translates to Piper’s understanding of the situation. Mahree, on the other hand, only knew and understood what she was told by her white family and peers. In the beginning of the film, it is revealed that Mahree’s father had arrested Biko, which is why she labels Biko as a “crazy terrorist who killed himself” and reacts defensively when Piper called the South African police “pigs.”
By the end of the film, Mahree begins to understand racism and its effects on those who are oppressed and affected by it. She returns home with the freedom flag for Black South Africans stitched to the inside of her vest—a symbol that was banned in her country during the time.
The Color of Friendship was one of Disney Channel’s first efforts at diversifying its content and educating its audience through representation. It was one of the more racially conscious films—if not the most—in the DCOM family and beyond during this time, as few networks dared to tackle Black and white race conflicts as blatantly as this film did, especially for a young audience.
The Walt Disney Company’s official policy on its stories and characters is as follows: “The Disney brand has always been inclusive, with stories that reflect acceptance and tolerance and celebrate the differences that make our characters uniquely wonderful in their own way.” While this policy has been somewhat manifested recently in shows like Andi Mack, the channel’s depictions and conversations regarding race, specifically, have declined since the early aughts. According to IMDB, between 2000-2010, nine Disney movies were created that featured a majority Black cast. From 2011-2019, this number decreased to just one— Let It Shine starring Tyler James Williams.
Two decades after its release, The Color of Friendship’s importance and timelessness are recognizable in the fact that the misconceptions we see between Piper and Mahree are still present today, both on an individual and institutional level. At the surface, the film was Disney Channel’s way of acknowledging differences in upbringing between races while also sharing a true story that had not yet been told to a wide audience, offering Disney's young viewers an introduction to more complicated conversations about race relations in a pre-Obama America—though now, these lessons feel as needed as ever.